Pompey 2 Reading under-23s 2 (3-4 on penalties): Neil Allen’s match report

Jack Whatmough was one of four Pompey players to  see their penalties saved by Reading under-23s goalkeeper Anssi Jaakola at Fratton Park                   Picture: Joe Pepler
Jack Whatmough was one of four Pompey players to see their penalties saved by Reading under-23s goalkeeper Anssi Jaakola at Fratton Park Picture: Joe Pepler
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The ailing Checkatrade Trophy stumbled upon Fratton Park desperate for resuscitation.

Instead the only life-saving action occurred within the disused Fratton End as Pompey fans last night delivered the heftiest blow yet to the format inflicted by an incurable wheeze.

The Football League club possessing an average home attendance of 16,769 opened its Frogmore Road doors to the Checkatrade Trophy for an uncomfortable introduction.

Unsurprisingly, the outcome was a crowd of 1,355 – the lowest in the Blues’ post-war history for a Fratton fixture.

The Fratton faithful, joined by Reading followers unusually housed in the lower South stand, created an unwanted new record.

Such was the apathy for the visit of Reading under-23s, the club took unprecedented steps to announce the Fratton End’s closure a month in advance.

Instead the Victory Lounge, that popular pre-match drinking haunt which inhabits the stand, was repackaged to hold a blood donor session on behalf of the NHS.

That event attracted 170 people through its day-long opening hours, shutting 45 minutes before kick-off for a tally which exceeded Reading’s 133 travelling numbers.

Pompey fans have formed the front-line protests against the revamped Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, while chief executive Mark Catlin is no doubt perceived as the chief rabble rouser among his circles.

Last night, the resentment was demonstrated through an eye-catching attendance low which cannot be glibly brushed off as a trouble-making minority refusing the acknowledge essential change.

The competition designed to boost crowds and propel increased interest through the handing over of passports to Premier League clubs and their ilk has yielded a contrasting reaction.

Now the club with the third-highest average attendance outside the Championship has reported a crowd drop of 92 per cent compared to their previous fixture against Doncaster.

In terms of football, it finished 2-2, with Curtis Main netting twice after the Blues found themselves 2-0 down after 52 minutes.

There was also an entertaining bonus of a penalty shootout, the hosts losing 4-3, although Liam O’Brien pulled off three stunning saves.

Yet for so many fans, last night was largely about the size of the attendance and a voice towards the Football League rather than match action.

The Checkatrade Trophy and its Dr Frankenstein master, Shaun Harvey, have received a battering from pitchfork brandishing and torch-bearing townsfolk up and down the country.

Harvey’s desperation to tinker with nature has prompted a backlash from supporters who decline to be ruled by the Premier League and those downstairs eagerly willing to serve upon the ringing of a bell.

Such is the strength in numbers of those who refuse the fate dictated from above that, within two rounds of the competition, the Checkatrade Trophy has been toppled to its knees to face an inevitable death.

Yesterday’s focus may have been on a footballing event bloated by under-23 teams under the fairyland guise of boosting international success for England.

However, the greatest danger continues to be posed by a Whole Game Solution whose power has already been reduced, yet remains a threat to the fabric of Football League members.

In the meantime, football goes on and, playing in front of three closed stands, Pompey beat their previous lowest Fratton crowd of 2,318, against Bristol City.

That was established in August 1993, when Jim Smith’s side won an Anglo-Italian Cup fixture 3-1, a much-maligned competition blighted by low attendances, both in England and abroad.

However, last night’s crowd of 1,355 exceeded Pompey’s smallest in all competitions in this country – 1,055 at Oxford United in December 1990.

Paul Cook made 10 changes to the side which lost to Doncaster at the weekend, with Matt Clarke the lone survivor.

Curtis Main and Michael Smith were named in a twin strikeforce, while Jack Whatmough marked another outing following his early-season injury.

As for Reading under-23s, managed by former Pompey midfielder Martin Kuhl, they named only five Englishmen in their starting line-up.

In the opening minutes, a Reading cross was delivered from the right and Tyler Frost popped up at the far post to steer a shot narrowly wide.

At the other end, Adam Buxton crossed from the right and Michael Smith glanced a header wide of the post.

Yet on six minutes the hosts found themselves behind following excellent work from Joseph Mendes.

The powerful striker burst through the middle and pulled the ball back from the byline where Andrija Novakovich confidently finished with his right foot.

Pompey responded encouragingly, with Milan Lalkovic and Buxton both seeing firm shots blocked when they would have caused the keeper problems.

On 32 minutes, Dominic Samuel drove in a shot from just outside the box which O’Brien gathered at the second attempt.

Reading keeper Anssi Jaakkola was barely being tested, although Smith was not far off with a curling shot from the left after being teed up by Lalkovic.

There was a blow for the Blues when Buxton worryingly limped off in the 44 minute to be replaced at right-back by Gareth Evans.

Reading’s youngsters extended their lead on 52 minutes when Amine Linganzi was adjudged to have handled Liam Kelly’s corner and Mendes stepped up to score from the spot.

The hosts reduced the deficit on 57 minutes when Evans crossed from the right and Main slid in at the near post to net.

Only six minutes later and the scores were level when Bennett push a pass through to Main who calmly curled a first-time right-foot shot past the keeper.

Main was denied the opportunity to grab a hat-trick when he was substituted for Kal Naismith in the 69th minute.

The unmarked Tyler Frost had a chance to win it during three minutes of time added on but steered his shot straight at O’Brien.

It finished 2-2, with Reading under-23s triumphing in the penalty shootout – but the real result was a bloody nose for the tournament no supporter wants.